John Charles Fields (1863-1932): The History of the Fields Medal

Canadian mathematician John Charles Fields, best known for being the founder of the Fields Medal, considered the “Nobel of Mathematics”, was born in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1863.

Son of the owner of a leather goods store and a teacher, Fields began his studies in public schools in his hometown, and received a gold medal for his performance in Mathematics. He graduated in Mathematics from the University of Toronto in 1884 and earned his PhD in 1887 from Johns Hopkins University, in the United States, where he remained for two years as a professor.

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Unhappy with mathematical research in North America, he moved to Europe in 1891, initially settling in Berlin, Göttingen and Paris, where he teamed with some of the greatest mathematicians of his time, such as Karl Weierstrass, Felix Klein, Ferdinand Georg Frobenius and Max Planck. It was during this period that Fields began a long-lasting friendship with Magnus Gösta Mittag-Leffler, publishing articles on a new topic – algebraic functions – that would become the most profitable field of his career.

Back in Canada in 1901, Fields worked hard to raise the mathematical level in the country. He was elected president of the Royal Canadian Institute (1919-1925) and was responsible for Toronto to host the 1924 International Congress of Mathematicians. He devoted himself so much to this task that he developed cardiac problems.

He would conceive the Fields Medal at the end of the 1920s, but he did not experience the award since he died at age 69, on August 9, 1932, from a stroke. However, on his deathbed, he made sure that his Irish colleague John Lighton Synge would include in his personal will a $ 47,000 grant for the Fields Medal. And so it was done.

First awarded in 1936, the Fields Medal was reintroduced in the first ICM after World War II in 1950, and has been delivered every four years ever since.

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